EDINBURG, RGV – UT Rio Grande Valley will be one the universities in Texas shouting loudest for the retention of in-state tuition for DREAMers this legislative session, says one of its vice-presidents.

Under House Bill 1403, signed into law by Gov. Rick Perry in 2001, certain undocumented students can receive an education at public universities in Texas at in-state tuition rates. These are much lower than the rates for non-residents of Texas.

“UT RGV’s position is that in-state tuition has helped so many of our students to be productive citizens, so we are very supportive,” said Veronica Gonzales, vice president for government and community relations at UT RGV. “We have 880 students between UTB and UTPA who benefit from the in-state tuition.”

UT RGV Vice President Veronica Gonzales and UTPA student Eric Aguilar.
UT RGV Vice President Veronica Gonzales and UTPA student Eric Aguilar.

Gonzales made her comments, exclusively to the Rio Grande Guardian, at the end of a Valley Legislative Tour event hosted by the Rio Grande Valley Partnership, the Valley’s regional chamber of commerce. The event, which included an appearance by Gov. Greg Abbott, was held at the Edinburg Conference Center at Renaissance.

At the conclusion of a panel discussion on healthcare, Dr. Carlos Cardenas, chairman of the board at Doctors Hospital at Renaissance and moderator of the panel, asked if anyone in the audience had a comment or a question.

Eric Aguilar, a student studying for a bachelor’s degree in rehabilitative services at UT-Pan American, was the only person in the audience to raise his hand. He said he had a comment for the state legislators in the audience. He spoke about his experience growing up and getting an education in the United States.

“I am a product of the Valley. I am a product of the colonias the Governor talked about. I, like about 600 other students at UTPA, was not born in this country. I was raised here since I was four years old. I have pledged to this flag since as long as I can remember. This country is all I know. I do not remember Mexico,” Aguilar said.

UTPA student Eric Aguilar and state Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr.
UTPA student Eric Aguilar and state Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr.

Aguilar told the panel and the legislators that while he does not qualify for every financial aid package available to students, he has been able to get an education at UTPA at the in-state tuition rate.

“This year there are already legislators going into work trying to repeal (HB 1403),” Aguilar said. “I am about to finish my bachelor’s degree in rehabilitative services at UTPA. If that (HB 1403) was to be repealed it would make it impossible for students like myself and the 600 others at UTPA to pay for their tuition.”

Aguilar made a plea to the visiting legislators. “We need your support. We need your help with this. I know there is a lot of opposition but I think this (in-state tuition) benefits our area greatly. It is just the smart thing to do. We want the better-prepared people out there to keep Texas in the forefront. We just want your support to keep House Bill 1403.”

There was loud applause for Aguilar. Dr. Cardenas asked state Sen. Eddie Lucio, who was sitting at a VIP table close to where Aguilar was standing, if he would like to respond. Lucio said yes.

“I want to invite this young man to come to Austin and articulate what he said tonight. The most significant thing he said tonight was that he pledged his allegiance to the flag of my country and that is so important to me. I am extremely patriotic,” Lucio said.

“Some of these young men and women who grow up here are here through no choice of their own. They came here at a very young age and it is up to us to make sure that they continue to live the American Dream that they dream about every day of their lives.”

Like Aguilar, Lucio made a plea to the legislators in the room.

“I would ask my fellow legislators to pay close attention to what this young man just said. He pledges allegiance to the flag of this country. He knows no other. He has lived here all this time and I think we need to have not only access to healthcare but access to citizenship for those that need our help so I very much am in favor of helping him,” Lucio said.

There were no other questions or comments and so Dr. Cardenas closed the meeting. At this point, Lucio went over to thank Aguilar for his remarks. So did UT RGV Vice President Gonzales. “Thank you for being such a productive citizen for our state of Texas. I think you are going to go far in life,” Gonzales told Aguilar. He responded by saying: “Thank you. We really need the support, especially from our institution.”

Gonzales then gave her interview to the Rio Grande Guardian. Asked if UT RGV will get involved if there are serious moves to undo HB 1403, Gonzales said: “We have to be. We have the most (undocumented immigrant students),” Gonzales said. “We have seen it first-hand. We have seen the benefits this bill provides to our students and their families and to our community.”

Gonzales said the UT System is not taking a position itself on whether to support or oppose the repeal of HB 1403. However, she said it is letting individual universities within the System to take whatever positions they choose.

“I think it is really important that (UT) San Antonio and ourselves and others that have seen first-hand the achievement so many of our students have made, that we are able to relay that message (to legislators),” Gonzales said.

“But we also want the students go in and deliver their message. It moves people when legislators hear the personal stories. I was a legislator and it moved me when I heard stories of where people came from and where they were going and how enthusiastic they were.”

Aguilar told the Rio Grande Guardian before he made his remarks that he had tried to get to speak to Gov. Abbott during the event but was not given an opportunity. Abbott had left the event by the time Aguilar spoke.

Aguilar will be one of the UTPA students that can travel to Austin to speak against legislation that would repeal in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants. Aguilar has been granted travel and work privileges thanks to President Obama’s deferred action. But many DREAMers have not yet benefited from DACA and would thus be unable to get past the Border Patrol checkpoint at Falfurrias.

Gonzales reiterated UT RGV’s support for in-state tuition for DREAMers.

“We keep talking about what a great state we are and we have so much hope and we do not want to kill dreams. This (repeal of HB 1403) would kill dreams for so many students if they were not allowed in-state tuition because… we are not saying they cannot go to school but for so many, taking away the in-state tuition you have basically killed the opportunity for them to go to school.”